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Commentary Sci-Tech

Black holes just got a little less mysterious, and we got to share the moment

The first ever picture of a black hole made us all feel like astrophysicists for a day.

black-hole-concept-nasa

Until now, our visions of black holes have largely been artists concepts (like this one) based on scientific data. Now, we've seen the real deal. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech

In the modern space age, when we're planning future habitats on Mars and sending space probes out past the distant reaches of our solar system, it's amazing to think there's still so much we don't know about space.

And black holes represent that great unknown in a nutshell.

But it's always been reassuring to know that, while most of us don't have degrees in astrophysics, the smartest minds on the planet were mostly in the dark on black holes like the rest of us. Until now.

The image of the black hole in the center of Messier 87 galaxy, captured by the Event Horizon Telescope.

Event Horizon Telescope

This week, a team of scientists across the world working for the Event Horizons Telescope revealed the first ever image of a black hole. And while it might look like a blurry orange ring (or a lo-fi Firefox logo), the implications are mind-blowing.

Not only because we can use this data to further explore Einstein's general theory of relativity. Not only because we can study black holes more closely and work out how the laws of physics break down at their center. Not only because it opens the door to more images and more accurate observations coming down the pipeline.

It's exciting because this week we all became astrophysicists, getting to feel the awe of discovery and getting to see what even the brightest minds in the world had never seen before.

I've always found black holes bamboozling. In a world where I can fade a pair of jeans in two washes, how is it possible that anything is so black that we cannot even see it? How can there be parts of space that cram the mass of 20 suns into a region the size of Manhattan?! How can a woman who looks like she's roughly the same age as me take a photo of a warp in space-time?! I'm just stoked to take a half-decent photo of my brunch.

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But when you explore the science behind black holes, you realise that even the smartest people in the world don't have the answers.

We don't know what's in the middle of a black hole and we don't fully understand how they behave. All of us are in the same boat here -- learning about these things for the first time. Sure, the astrophysicists are thinking about theoretical cosmology and we're thinking up good memes, but when we see that image of a black hole, there's a sense of being part of something so much bigger and being in it together. Just like the revelations about gravitational waves we saw in 2016, the entire planet gets to take a moment to say, "Hell yeah, science is pretty flipping awesome."

This week I managed to wrap my head around black holes (just). If you want to learn more about how they work and the new discoveries from the Event Horizons Telescope, then check out this week's episode of Watch This Space. And for plenty more space news, you can watch the whole series on CNET or YouTube (astrophysics degree not required).